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The last hurrah before the vault closed. - 90%

hells_unicorn, April 12th, 2019
Written based on this version: 2002, 12" vinyl, Hidden Metal Gems (Limited edition)

If one were to select the least likely of events to take place in the 1980s, it would be for one of the better examples of early 80s traditional styled metal to come raging out of the trenches circa 1985, let alone doing so from a country other than Germany, England or the USA. It isn't so much that the rest of Europe and parts of South America and Asia weren't putting out some solid metal, and the Netherlands did have a few powerhouses putting forth respectable outings by the mid-80s such as Angus, Martyr and Defender, but the circumstances surrounding Vault's de facto second studio album Sword Of Steel is particularly auspicious, despite its relative obscurity. While most of the early guard of Germany and the NWOBHM were becoming more and more commercialized, this soon to be defunct Dutch underground act would unleash the pinnacle of their career, albeit in the form of a highly limited demo recording that wouldn't see a proper release until a limited vinyl reissue hit shelves circa 2002, when interest in the older ways had been rejuvenated thanks to the millennial power metal revival and a concurrent heavy metal rebirth that would manifest completely a few years later.

The resulting sound of this octet of riff driven anthems has a decidedly British flavor to it, taking a fair degree of influence from the early 80s offerings of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, occasionally veering off into a lighter and slightly older feel in line with Rainbow and the short-lived NWOBHM meets prog rock flash in the pan White Spirit. To be clear, the influences implied in the latter two comparison bands are slight, as the overall edge and bite displayed in this guitar-oriented metallic assault has more in common with the quasi-thrashing early offerings of Grim Reaper and Diamond Head than the keyboard-drenched pop/rock feel of Bent Out Of Shape, and the lightest ballad found on here in "Revenge For Rape" starts with a sorrowful, UFO-like set of lamenting arpeggios, but has more in common with punchy power ballads like W.A.S.P.'s "Sleeping In The Fire" or Twisted Sister's "The Price" than a sappy retread of "Street Of Dreams" or the lovelorn crooning of a typical Dokken ballad. Likewise, the more melodic cruiser "Terror" has the occasional commonality with something off Di'Anno's eponymous 1984 arena rock album, which is further bolstered by vocalist Henri Draaijer having a similar sounding voice to the original Maiden front man in question, but the crunch of the guitars and the blaring solo work puts it closer to Judas Priest territory.

Once dispensing with the lighter side of this mostly harder edged heavy metal affair, the picture on display here rests somewhere between the trifecta of British Steel, Killers and Lightning To The Nations. Adding further fuel to the impressive fire denoting by these points of comparison is a speed-infused cruiser of an opening song "Run Or Die", which is probably the most technically involved offering on here while also being among the more catchy, kicking off with a raucous drum intro like a perfect outtake from Cozy Powell's handiwork on "Stargazer". Curiously enough, this riveting opener doesn't even constitute the tip of the iceberg, as the shred-happy speeder "His Will Shall Be Done" rages forth with about the same degree of intensity as the title track off Maiden's aforementioned sophomore LP, with some pretty heavy side orders of lead guitar detailing reminiscent of Brian Tatler with traces of Smith and Murray. The absolute fever pitch of high-flying fun is reached towards the tail end of things with a blazing speed metal romp in "Blackmail" that sounds half like "Exciter" and half like "Back In The Village", while the beast of a closer "Sword Of Steel" sees drummer Norbert Sulman revving up his Cozy Powell chops again and the guitar work laying on the Iron Maiden influences like it's going out of style.

Perhaps the lone downside to this album, nay, countless unsung classics that came out of the deluge of heavy, power and speed metal scenes in the early to mid 1980s, is that it is near impossible to track down in physical form without breaking the bank. But in this particular album's case it is doubly so given that it never really received a proper release until nearly 20 years after it was recorded, and then only in vinyl form. Thankfully, the advent of the internet has increased the potential for the general public to experience this album in its entirety, and even the fussiest of slick-production supporting AOR fans will be remiss to deny that this album sounds like a full fledged studio LP, though maybe one sporting a production more appropriate to 1982 than 1985. Though rarity hounds like yours truly will continue to try and push every obscure piece of metal out there to the random passerby, this is one of those hidden gems that should be heard by any self-respecting NWOBHM fan and younger generation New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal fan alike. There are few things more metal than a good old fashioned sword of steel, and this band putting it right in their album's name is accomplished without the slightest hint of pretentiousness.